We reveal hidden climate offenders
Greenhouse gases lurk in many unexpected places. Did you know that your neighbour’s cat is also a hidden climate offender?
When we discuss greenhouse gases and climate offenders, we usually make lists of countries topped by China and the USA. Or we denounce the CO2 emissions of cars and aeroplanes. But there are other, less obvious climate offenders. Here are some examples.
Organic waste silently ferments on the world’s big landfills, emitting methane, a greenhouse gas. It packs a punch, because a tonne of methane is 25 times more damaging to the climate than a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2). According to Environmental Action Germany, landfills are the world’s third-largest non-natural source of methane.
But there is another way. In Germany, a country regarded as a champion of waste separation, much organic waste no longer ends up in landfill but is composted, an environmentally safe disposal method. More and more countries are also using ventilation systems in landfills to reduce the formation of methane. They also collect the gas as a source of energy.
2. International shipping
Getting a containership 400 metres long and with a 14-metre draught to move takes a great deal of energy. And even when it is sailing, the behemoth continues to pollute the air on every nautical mile – as do at least 40,000 other commercial vessels plying the seas of our planet. Tankers, bulk carriers and cruise ships all sail with heavy oil. So they are fitted with soot particle filters or catalytic converters, like cars, right? Wrong. The shipping industry is still reluctant to install this technology, even if there are already positive examples.
According to the global network for energy-efficient shipping, the use of existing technologies and operational measures could reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 75 per cent. But that is not likely to happen for the time being. The EU Commission expects the shipping industry’s CO2 emissions to increase by 50 to 250 per cent by the year 2050.
3. Rice farming
Luscious green rice paddies that provide food for millions of people – a deceptive idyll from a climate point of view. Rice farming, too, emits methane and is responsible for around 1.5 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. That does not look like a high percentage. But if we look at some South-East Asian countries individually, rice farming makes up a large part of the national carbon footprint. Incidentally, global agriculture is responsible for some 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
There are ways out of the climate trap here as well. The International Rice Research Institute (IRR) has found out that if rice paddies are left to dry out every once in again, methane emissions can be reduced by 60 to 90 per cent. For that to happen, rice farmers will have to change their farming methods. It should be viable in principle, mainly because this alternative farming method is also expected to increase harvest yields.
4. Reservoirs and dams
For a long time, hydropower was regarded as a climate-neutral source of energy. But behind the more than one million dams around the world, large amounts of organic matter accumulate that disintegrate slowly and release methane gas. Because the water covers former land areas and the water level in the artificial lakes rises and falls more often than in natural lakes, they contain much more organic matter and release more methane, according to US scientist Bridget R. Deemer and her colleagues from the BioScience magazine.
Many questions still remain unanswered, but scientists now believe that dammed reservoirs have a similarly poor greenhouse gas balance as rice paddies.
Many people in industrialised countries only want the best for their dogs and cats. And that means the best diet for their four-legged companions. According to an American study, the more than 163 million dogs and cats living in the USA produce an estimated 64 tonnes of CO2 equivalent methane and laughing gas because their diet contains so many animal products and the consumption of meat causes significantly more greenhouse gases than plant-based foods.
Dogs and cats are unlikely to reduce their climate transgressions in the coming years. Particularly in emerging countries such as China, the diet of pets follows the same quality standards as that of their owners. And these are growing increasingly fond of animal-based foods.
Cycling to work, eating local produce for lunch, and surfing the Internet in the evening – a day with a perfect personal climate footprint, right? Wrong. Surfing the web throws all your good intentions out the window. It takes four medium-sized power plants to run Germany’s data processing centres alone on a monthly basis. According to the German environmental label Blue Angel, the global IT industry produces the same amount of CO2 equivalents as all global air traffic.
But there is a good chance that the data processing centres’ energy efficiency will improve in the future. Although they need to be cooled well because their large servers produce a great deal of heat, they can be a warm 28° instead of a cool 20° without any consequences. According to Blue Angel, that will reduce their electricity requirements by more than one fifth. Besides, better utilisation of the data processing centres’ capacities can save energy and improve their climate footprint.
Almost everyone has a carbon footprint – apart from perhaps some indigenous populations who are still preserving their original way of life. That has prompted researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly A. Nicholas to issue the radical recommendation that couples should have one less child as a particularly effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It did not take long for this proposal to come under fire. Many people are willing to give up something to protect the climate, but such massive interference with their personal life choices and a recommendation against life itself went a bit too far.
Still, one good thing came from this proposal. It caused people to think about how they can protect the climate – without giving up having children altogether.
Hidden climate offenders revealed – and now?
Should we abandon our family planning, get rid of our pets, stop using the Internet and stop eating rice? Drawing such consequences from the examples presented here would be exaggerated. Today we cannot avoid producing greenhouse gases entirely. But we can reduce our carbon footprint – with more conscious decisions, day after day. Why not start right now?